Libertarian Failure: The Paradigm that Never Shifts

By Dr. Sean Gabb

Libertarian Alliance

Here in Britain, the main effect of the Brussels bombings will be to speed passage of the Investigatory Powers Bill. This will require communications service providers to store all our Internet activity for a year, and to make it available to the authorities in circumstances that will not always require a warrant. I will say, for the avoidance of doubt, that I regard this as a very bad Bill, and I will briefly outline my objections to it.

1. In the 1970s and 1980s, we faced a serious – indeed, an existential – threat from Sinn Fein/IRA. It raised an insurrection within part of the United Kingdom for the purpose of detaching part of the United Kingdom. In shootings and bombings, mostly in Ulster, but also in the mainland United Kingdom, it killed thousands of people. The authorities responded with firmness, but made few changes to the normal course of law enforcement. Those changes made were contained in the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, which had to be renewed annually, and the powers granted fell with the lapsing of the Acts.

Islamic terrorism has killed few people so far in this country. Taken as an average since 2000, around five people a year have been killed. Yet the response is to make everyone in the country into a permanent terrorism suspect.

2. The powers granted in the Bill are unlikely to deter terrorists. They do not mostly communicate by e-mail and telephone calls. Or, if they do, they communicate in foreign languages, using theological allusions that I do not believe our authorities are able to understand. Collecting data on the whole population is likely to divert resources from the normal policing that is needed to deter or to catch terrorists.

3. There is no certainty that any information gathered will not be shared with, or sold to, or stolen by, foreign governments or other kinds of criminal. The British State has has a bad record on protecting the data it already has. Indeed, there is a Wikipedia page devoted to data losses by the British State. All else aside, it is unwise to let more data be accumulated by people who cannot be trusted to look after what they have.

4. The Bill allows local authorities to require access to our communications records, for the purpose of investigating welfare and other frauds. I suspect that this is part of the real intention behind the Bill. We are not being given a police state so the authorities can keep us safe from terrorists. Terrorism is just the latest excuse for giving us a police state.

5. When I speak of a police state, I do not mean formal censorship and arbitrary arrest and punishment. These are not necessary in a country like ours. To make people into obedient sheep, it is enough to let them know they are being watched. That alone will make people change their behaviour. They will avoid disfavoured opinions and activities, and speak and act as they are required. I doubt if the present Bill will take us straight into this sort of police state. But it is a possibly important step to it.

Bearing these points in mind, I oppose the present Bill. But I see no point in developing them. I have already written about them elsewhere. More important, nothing I say will have any effect on whether and how the Bill becomes law. It may be sad that no one in authority listens to people like me. It is, however, a fact that must be taken into account. What I will discuss instead is why no one takes notice of us.

I am currently preparing a book of essays by my late friend Chris R. Tame. He was an accomplished bibliographer, and I have been slowed down in publishing his book by the need to type in hundreds of references scribbled over the hard copy. This has reminded me of the immense body of literature produced on our side between about 1930 and 1990. University professors, university journals, policy institutes lavishly funded by big business, economists, historians, philosophers, historians, sociologists, political scientists, journalists – no criticism in this period that could be made of the managerial state was left unmade. In writing his essays, Chris ran over whole libraries of books and articles. I read many of them when I was younger, and was convinced. Their collective effect was close to zero. Since about 1980, the authorities have placed a greater emphasis than they did on market rationality. No doubt, the Institute of Economic Affairs had some influence here. On the other hand, the model of statism established in the 1940s had become inconvenient to those who rule, and whatever market reforms were suggested went into a filter from which nothing emerged but corporatism. Again, the generations of men who wrote all those books were not replaced. In part, this was a failure of the last generation, which generally appointed non-entities. Mainly, though, the universities and big business have been captured by the leftists. There are not, and will not be, any more Antony Flews and Stanislav Andreskis – no more men with the time and the tenured authority to continue the work of arguing for a free society.

We have lost, I believe, because those generations of highly able men were engaged in the equivalent of making bricks without straw. In 1986, the Social Affairs Unit published A Diet of Reason, This was a comprehensive demolition of official dietary advice and food regulation. It was discussed and heavily promoted in those parts of the media that were still conservative. Thousands of copies were bought and handed out by food manufacturers. There was even an audiobook edition. It had no effect. The food controllers had a few months of diminishing embarrassment, and continued expanding their numbers and powers. The book is now forgotten. Or there was E.G. West’s Education and the State, published in 1965 by the Institute of Economic Affairs. This piled up massive evidence that England was already a literate society before the State intervened in education, and that the Education Act 1870 and its precursors were projected on various kinds of statistical fraud. Again, the book had a brief notoriety, and was forgotten. It is not listed in the bibliography of any mainstream history of education that I have read. I could mention dozens of other books of the same kind. But these two can stand for the rest.

To make use of Thomas Kuhn, there is, at any time in any society, an overall paradigm that both explains the world and provides an agenda for action. For a very long time in this country, the paradigm has been statist. The justifications may overlap and change from time to time – the welfare of the working classes, racial and sexual equality, anthropogenic climate change, the demonisation of Moslems and paedophiles and the unhealthy, and so forth. But the paradigm is one that accepts an enlarged state as both inevitable and desirable. Books like A Diet of Reason and Education and the State do no more than draw attention to anomalies.

Now, anomalies can overthrow a paradigm. But they need to accumulate on a scale that amounts to the catastrophic – for example the impact of the Spanish arrival on the Aztec theology. This barely ever happens. What does mostly happen is that anomalies are ignored and forgotten. Or, if they continue to accumulate, they will force a shift within the existing paradigm. I mention again the change in economic policy after 1980. If it were otherwise, those libraries of books that Chris put in his bibliographies would by now have carried us into

some kind of anarcho-utopia. If our present social paradigm is to be destroyed, it is necessary to make people lose interest in it. I cannot be bothered with a minute critique of the Investigatory Powers Bill because, as said, no one important listens to us – but also because proving how our Internet records will end up with ISIS or in North Korea will get nothing more than a shrug and a few soothing words about the “safeguards” in the Bill. We need to do better than produce anomalies of detail.

I will give this illustration of how paradigm shifts take place. In 1600, just about everyone in Western Europe assented to these propositions: that we are surrounded by invisible beings of great power; that some of these beings are evil; that humans are able, through the appropriate rituals and incantations, to make contact with these beings; that we must do whatever is necessary to deter and to punish such contact. Showing that some alleged witches had been framed, or that some were mad, did nothing to overthrow belief in witchcraft. By 1700, almost no one in authority believed in witchcraft, and the laws in England and France had been repealed or were in abeyance. Yet there was virtually no attack, during the seventeenth century, on the basic propositions mentioned above. They were defended with great subtlety, but never contested. What happened was that the educated classes gave up on Platonism. They preferred instead to think of the universe as a kind of machine governed by laws that could be reduced to mathematics. In this new paradigm, there was no room for belief in witchcraft. It was abandoned with barely a considered thought. Otherwise inexplicable events were now dismissed as not yet explained.

I doubt it was the work of Kepler and Galileo and Newton that produced this paradigm shift. Hardly anyone read them. They only became generally famous in the eighteenth century, after the paradigm shift had already taken place. The shift was more likely caused by contemplation of the pocket watch.

All through the twentieth century, our people tried to shift the paradigm by purely intellectual activism. Given the altered correlation of forces within the universities, they worked on a scale that we cannot now match. They still failed. The reason was that they were trying to apply their lever to the wrong point. The Diet of Reason was a modest sensation. But the leftists controlled light entertainment. You can wait for the fuss over an unwelcome book to die down. You cannot argue with a plotline in Eastenders, or the lyrics of a pop song. And it was not just light entertainment, or in the 1980s, that the leftists became culturally active. They had, by 1960 at the latest, taken control over virtually the whole mechanism of cultural reproduction, both here and in America – and they had been increasingly predominant for decades before then. They were able to set the terms of debate, and they were able to create the environment within which their setting of those terms was seen as reasonable.

Intellectual activism is not a waste of time. Someone needs to articulate the counter-paradigm. But this is not sufficient in itself to overthrow the dominant paradigm. It should be seen rather as one line of attack in a largely cultural assault. We need our economists and philosophers. We also need our writers and artists and musicians. We need our own unofficial and unregulated – and that probably means secret – schools. We need our own structures of family life and arbitration. Our counter-paradigm must be seen to exist across the whole spectrum. We cannot try to privatise defence procurement, or bring back gold, and expect the tone of Hollywood and the BBC and the publishing industry to change accordingly. We must provide our own full-spectrum alternative. Plainly, we have done almost nothing in this direction. Hardly surprising if we life in a grotty police state.

I therefore see no purpose in more than a token attack on the Investigatory Powers Bill. We should spend more time writing and reviewing fiction, and composing music. We should try to have more children, and to bring them up in our values. If you are rich, and have read this far, I suggest your donations are better spent on publishing alternate history novels or commissioning wind quintets from libertarian or conservative composers, than on yet another with-a-bound-he-was-free effort to reform the Bank of England, or to leave the European Union, or to defeat a Parliamentary Bill that virtually every elected politician thinks it madness not to pass.

But that is all. I think I have explained myself.

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